Dedication: For my grandfather Bruno Berler who was born in Vienna.
Perhaps my greatest luxury of late is sitting in sunshine under a big yellow umbrella reading and writing prose. The cafe where I am is in the shopping precinct in the district in which I now reside. It's aesthetic is perfectly suited to attracting the attention of passers-by, including dancers, yoga teachers, sculptors, painters, potters, saxophonists, guitarists, writers, hikers and the like. It would be no less convenient, I think, for 18th, 19th and 20th century intellectuals if only we could bring them back to life!
Indeed, I regret (to some degree) being here alone. I'd happily be diverted from my solitude by any number of people who no longer reside on this earthly plane: Sophie Scholl, for instance, though I'm told that she actually had very little to say; what she said was more in the mode of activism, the sort of which led to her swift execution at the tender age of 21. If she had lived now, I wonder what she would have to say about all sorts of things: Covid-19, the Trump era, the Black Lives Matter movement and so on. We'll never know but I'm grateful to Clive James that he devotes nine pages to her in Cultural Amnesia - Notes on the Margin of My Time (2007).
I keep going on about this book. It's the 'joy of discovery' that seems integral to my personality. I had mentioned to a friend that I had started reading Jame's translation of The Divine Comedy, when he pulled this out of his bookcase. I'm extremely grateful. As it turns out, the book has become a constant companion during the Covid-19 lock-down. Indeed, I will have to buy a copy now because it's one of those books you need to have on the shelf to revisit again and again. (Inside my head, I hear my children saying 'well you can probably get an online version!' because they are each reluctant to weigh themselves down with too many material possessions.)
As I muse on James' choices of folk about whom he has made 'notes': Albert Camus, Egon Friedell, Terry Gilliam, Ricarda Huch, Franz Kafka, Golo Mann, Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, Arthur Schnitzler, Tacitus - just to name a few, my mind is also wandering to witness (without seeming to pry) on my fellow diners. I am wondering what the man on my left is typing on his laptop: journal notes, an esoteric essay or a piece for an online mag? Is he observing and recording anything of note? I want to ask him but I refrain. (Again, I hear the voice of one of my children imploring me not to interfere!) Is he a journalist or a professional writer, a student or a diarist? I deduce by the way he blows his nose and eats his lunch that he is not a professional writer but how would I really know?
Clive James where are you?
What a pity we never met, except here on the page. Your voice seems so clear and erudite through every moment of this massive tome that took you 40 years to write. It's an unwieldy doorstop, for sure, at 850 pages, minus the Index. Oh, how I envy your persistence.
The cast of characters is impressive, let alone the cultural cross references, wit, linguistic grace. Perhaps those I would most like to invite to the table are those who died suddenly but with a strength of purpose like Sophie Scholl and Egon Friedell. Their stories are bleak and shocking, but also profoundly moving and heroic. They each died for much the same reason (sort of). Sophie, (the hero of heroes, in my view), says of her part in standing up against the Nazis on behalf of the Jews:
'Finally, someone has to make a start. We only said and wrote what many people think. They just don't dare to express it'. (Sophie Scholl in James, 2007: p. 707 at the White Rose Trial in Munich quoted by Richard Hanser in Deutschland Zuliebe, p 15)
No recanting. Only execution. Short and sweet. Death by axe.
For Egon Friedell, polymath and cabaret star, the fate that awaits him is similar. In the Vienna where 'talk was a way of life' (James, 2007: 233), Friedell knows that Der Anschluss spells the end of the Vienna he loves, the Vienna in which cafes are the education heart of the city, where artists, writers, musicians, journalists, mind-workers of all types (mostly Jewish) exchange ideas on the informal campus of life.
Rather than wait till the Nazis arrest him, he takes his fate into his own hands and jumps out of his window, calling a warning to those below as he does so.
To read about Vienna and the Viennese in Jame's book nourishes me, all the more because what he resurrects in some modest way, a lost world of illumination, comic wit and intellect. James recounts that while 'most of the Jewish figures in Vienna's intellectual life were secular and assimilated' nevertheless 'the rabbinical tradition was strong' and that 'the wisecracks were concentrated wisdom' (2007, 232).
In 1938, there were 180,000 Jews in Vienna, of whom my grandfather was one, though he no longer lived there but was only visiting when the end was coming. It is true that the Jewish population in the city had been dwindling since a high point in the 1920s (James, 2007: 233). Sadly, the Austrian Nazis had put the cafe society intellectuals high on their hit list for cultural and physical annihilation. My grandfather was picked up and sent off to Dachau, and although he (miraculously) survived that trauma, it was only extended family connections that made his exit from that camp possible. (True to form, his nature as an outspoken politically-aware person, got him incarcerated again, in the early 1940s under the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies. This time, he would not survive.)
I remember that there is a 'family home' somewhere in Vienna. So far, I have not managed to travel there. Maybe I fear finding a city that is empty of the cultural energy that once gave it a heartbeat. My brother tells me that the city is very clean. This is not reassuring. Perhaps it leads me to think that there is no cacophony of voices any longer in the cafes, no creative chaos, no laughter, no conversation.
After imbibing my hot chocolates, I try to lean a little towards my right to glean what I can of the interchange going on between a mother and an adult son, in their conversation. I listen out for hints of references to literature or music, and think I hear a vague mention of the arts, of design. The words seem to coalesce around ideas of profit and marketing. I turn away, disappointed.
This is no old world Vienna for sure. Nevertheless, I'm grateful to the cafe owners here for creating a sense of place which entices one to want to talk with strangers or wait to meet one of the creatives of the town, who might just happen to be walking by.